Scientific Racism

Dr James Watson, a Nobel Prize winner for his part in discovering the structure of DNA, claims that “Black people are less intelligent” than white people, according to a story in the London Times. The article, by Helen Nugent, continues:

The 79-year-old geneticist said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

In the wake of this controversy, Watson’s sold-out talk at London’s Museum of Science has been cancelled. The London Times article goes on to quote Dr. Steven Rose, a professor of biological sciences at the Open University, who said:

“This is Watson at his most scandalous. He has said similar things about women before but I have never heard him get into this racist terrain. If he knew the literature in the subject he would know he was out of his depth scientifically, quite apart from socially and politically.”

There is excellent scholarship, including Rose’s book Not in Our Genes, with co-authors Lewontin and Kamin, that refutes the scientific racism of claims such as Watson’s. Of course, Troy Duster’s Backdoor to Eugenics is a more recent addition to this scholarship, and looks explicitly at the racial politics of the DNA-argument. And, in a very approachable text, Barbara Katz Rothman takes on the same issue in her The Book of Life: A Personal and Ethical Guide to Race, Normality and the Human Gene Study.

What all these scholars (Rose, Lewontin, Kamin, Duster and Katz Rothman) agree on, and what Watson fails to grasp, is that there is more variation within so-called “racial groups” than between them. Of course, Watson also misses the fact, as so many of those espousing scientific racism do, that “race” as a category fails to stand up to basic, scientific standards.

UPDATE: James D. Watson, …apologized “unreservedly” yesterday for comments reported this week suggesting that black people, over all, are not as intelligent as whites. more here from the NYTimes.